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Back-Alley Abortions in 2011: How Anti-Choice Zealots Force Women to Go to Dangerous Clinics Like Dr. Kermit Gosnell's

Thanks to the anti-choice movement, poor women throughout the U.S. cannot afford safe abortions and are sometimes forced to make extremely dangerous choices.

Dr. Kermit Gosnell has been charged with murdering one woman and seven newborn babies at his rogue clinic, called the Women’s Medical Society, in West Philadelphia. Though it’s too early to predict this case’s full political impact, it’s certain that anti-abortion groups will use it to push for further restrictions on women’s reproductive rights. But the legislation pushed by these anti-abortion conservatives is what has forced women into such life-threatening situations. Poor women throughout the United States cannot afford safe abortions and in consequence sometimes make extremely dangerous choices.

“Because of the Medicaid ban on abortion funding and state restrictions, poor women in the state and in Philadelphia really face horrific choices about what to do if they have an unwanted or unplanned pregnancy, or a pregnancy that poses significant health problems,” says Rose Corrigan, a professor of politics and law at Drexel University. “So what I’ve seen is that women often shop around for abortion services. Women are so poor that a few dollars really make a difference.”

Corrigan is also a volunteer at the Women’s Medical Fund, a Philadelphia organization that offers financial assistance to poor women seeking abortions. She says that her organization has been advising women against visiting the Women’s Medical Society since the mid-1990s.

“When women would call us we’d say, ‘There’s a reason it's cheap. Don’t go there.’”

“I think it’s also that abortion has become so stigmatized and that abortion care has become so ghettoized from mainstream medical care,” says Susan Schewel, executive director of the Women's Medical Fund. “It means that people aren’t talking about where’s a good place to go and where’s a safe place to go. And when women are harmed they’re afraid to go the authorities. We’ve talked with people here who have been mistreated at this clinic. And we’ve asked them to report it to proper state government authorities, and they said, ‘No way would we do that.’”

Some women did complain and the grand jury report faults the State of Pennsylvania for a catastrophic failure of oversight. Law enforcement officials in Philadelphia only became aware of the clinic in the course of an unrelated investigation into allegations that Dr. Gosnell was illegally distributing narcotics like Oxycontin.

“The grand jury investigation revealed,” according to a press release from District Attorney Seth Williams, “that, for over two decades, government health and licensing officials had received repeated reports about Gosnell’s dangerous practices. No action was ever taken, however, even after the agencies learned that women had died during routine abortions under Gosnell’s care.”

“Many organizations that perform safe abortion procedures do their own monitoring and adhere to strict, self-imposed standards of quality,” according to the grand jury report. “But the excellent safety records and the quality of care that these independently monitored clinics deliver to patients are no thanks to the Pennsylvania Department of Health. And not all women seeking abortion find their way to these high-quality facilities; some end up in a filthy, dangerous clinic such as Gosnell’s.”

The Women’s Medical Society, which opened in 1979, largely treated poor women of color. Dr. Gosnell, who was not certified as an ob/gyn, is charged with the murders of 41-year-old Nepali refugee Karnamaya Mongar and seven infants, and a number of other violations. Nine other clinic employees face murder and other charges. According to the grand jury report, Dr. Gosnell provided more attentive care in cleaner rooms to white women from the suburbs.

“I think that the failure of the state, when there have been these complaints for years, speaks to the way abortion isn’t considered normal health care, that abortion is segregated off from regular health care,” says Corrigan. “I really don’t think that if these complaints were coming in about another doctor the state would have ignored it. I really think it’s also about women being punished for having an abortion.”

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